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Hong Kong Security Law Has Global Firms Racing to Shield Secrets

Foreign executives admit they are worried about the secrecy provisions of the new law which comes into effect on Saturday

An evening view of the financial Central district and Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong (Reuters).


Global businesses in Hong Kong, unnerved by its new national security law, have been making plans to protect their company secrets from teams based in the territory.

Vague provisions in Hong Kong’s new legislation around state secrets and links to foreign entities have put many firms on edge in the financial hub, with some consultants and hedge funds updating contingency plans and seeking legal advice in a bid to counter the risks.

Several corporations, worried about data security, are now treating Hong Kong, once a major Asian base for multinationals, in the same way as mainland China and shielding information about the rest of the company from teams there, said an executive with decades of experience as an advisor to international firms.

Another executive said his hedge fund was seeking legal advice on how to deal with regulators and other government officials because of the state secrets provisions.


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“It boils down to a lack of trust in the Hong Kong government, that is beholden to China,” said a foreign executive who attended a recent meeting with senior Hong Kong officials.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s legislature unanimously approved the law, which updates a broader national security law imposed by China four years ago and comes with stiffer punishments for crimes including sedition and external interference.

The law takes effect on Saturday, March 23. The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, among other business associations, has said it would make Hong Kong “a safer destination for local and foreign businesses and professionals operating there”.

Citing national stability, Hong Kong and Chinese government officials have also defended the law from foreign criticism, saying it was no more severe than legislations in other countries including the United States, Britain and Singapore.

Some lawyers, however, said the sweeping definitions for several crimes around interference by so-called external forces, espionage and what constitutes a state secret, among others, had created uncertainty.

The businesspeople interviewed said the law potentially diminishes Hong Kong’s international role as it appears to hew closer to the tighter national security regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“For the international business community and financial investors, Hong Kong’s common law tradition and rule of equity are as important as the free information flow and currency convertibility,” said Weiheng Chen, senior partner at US-based law firm Wilson Sonsini.

“So how this legislation will be implemented within the existing common law system shall be closely monitored and assessed,” said Chen, who also heads the Greater China practice.


Chinese Corporate Databases

The lack of clarity around the terms and the implementation of the law was precisely what drove a hedge fund to update their contingency plans, an executive said.

“We’re urgently seeking advice on two key points – does our research of companies and individuals stray into risky areas, and how can we safely manage any relationships with foreign government-linked wealth funds. That includes how we share and store that research,” the executive said.

“We’d like to stay in Hong Kong, but Singapore is our back-up if need be,” they added.

Last year, the Chinese authorities tightened access to information including what’s available on Chinese corporate databases, and clamped down on due diligence firms, arresting 5 executives at the Beijing office of US-based Mintz Group.

A corporate investigator in Hong Kong for around 20 years said work that might no longer be viable could include looking into fraud or due diligence cases, as these discreet probes often scrutinise assets and companies.

These potential risks, three due diligence executives said, were already driving some consolidation in the sector, with some executives leaving the city.

“China’s security reach will increasingly extend into Hong Kong, including data regulations,” said the corporate advisor. “And while Hong Kong is still more open, the broader direction is clear.”


  • Reuters with additional editing by Sean O’Meara


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Sean O'Meara

Sean O'Meara is an Editor at Asia Financial. He has been a newspaper man for more than 30 years, working at local, regional and national titles in the UK as a writer, sub-editor, page designer and print editor. A football, cricket and rugby fan, he has a particular interest in sports finance.


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